By Gary Blankenship
Details, details, details.
From a possible change in the e-filing deadline for the Supreme Court to handling fee-free filings by government lawyers to dealing with paper filings after e-filing becomes mandatory, the Florida Court E-Filing Authority dealt with myriad issues at its February 14 meeting.
One of those details was a report that at least one county — Pinellas — is likely to miss the April 1 deadline when all lawyers are supposed to file their trial court civil cases electronically. Three other counties likely won’t be able to take some or all civil filings until April 1.
Another detail is that Bar members who become delinquent on their membership fees or CLE reporting could find themselves cut off from the ability to file court documents.
The authority oversees the Internet portal through which all court filings will eventually be made. It is working, along with the Supreme Court’s Florida Courts Technology Commission, to implement the court’s order that paperwork for civil trial cases filed by attorneys be done electronically by April 1. Criminal case filings will go electronic by October 1.
“We’re looking forward to having no issues and no problems on April 1, but the reality is we will probably have some and we will address those as they come up,” said authority Chair Tim Smith, Putnam County Clerk of Court.
The meeting was rife with examples of the broad range of items to be addressed.
One, of course, is the readiness of various county court clerks to receive the electronic filings through the portal.
Levi Owens, project manager for the portal, reported to the board that 58 counties had completed all preliminary work and can accept filings in all civil divisions. Five of the remaining nine counties were expected to complete their work between late February and mid-March. In the remaining counties, Hillsborough can accept probate filings and additional filings on existing cases, and expects to be able to take initial filings in new cases by April 1.
Miami-Dade can accept all family law filings and additional filings in existing cases in other civil divisions. It expects to be able to accept new filings in those other divisions by April 1. Pasco County expects to accept all civil filings by April 1. And Pinellas County can receive probate filings, but doesn’t expect to be able to accept other civil filings until April 29.
In response to a query from Smith, Owens said Pinellas officials are aware that they need to apply for an extension from the April 1 deadline from the Supreme Court.
Overall, the number of electronic filings in the trial courts skyrocketed in January compared to December, Owens said, from more than 60,000 to more than 90,000. Later in the meeting, Kenneth Kent, executive director of Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, which provides staffing for the authority, said one county court clerk recently told him he was receiving around 3,000 electronic filings a months now but expects that to increase to 150,000 by April 1.
Owens told the board that fewer than 22,000 attorneys have registered through the portal to do electronic filing, and he said that’s about one third of the total who are expected to register.
Board member and Supreme Court Clerk Tom Hall said the Supreme Court — the first appellate court to go to e-filing — had begun testing its system the previous day. The court had been expected to require mandatory e-filing as of February 27. But Hall reported the court was considering an order changing that to allow optional filing on February 27 and then requiring filing on April 1.
E-filing will be phased in at the district courts of appeal over the remainder of the year, he said.
Hall also told the board that disbarred and suspended attorneys, including those suspended when they forget to pay their annual Bar membership fees or report their CLE courses, may find themselves blocked from doing electronic filing in Florida courts.
He explained that when lawyers register to do e-filing, they give their Bar number as a check. Currently, the Bar supplies the Supreme Court with a list every week of disbarred lawyers, which the appellate courts use to ensure they are not filing documents as attorneys. Because of e-filing, the Bar will be updating that list daily, he said, and eventually it will include suspended lawyers. And sooner or later that list will be correlated to the e-filing system.
“A lot of people are suspended by failing to pay their fees on time. That suspension is immediate. If they don’t turn in their continuing legal education documentation, that database is updated automatically,” Hall said. “As we go forward electronically, we will get that database and those people will be locked out of the system. . . . Although I think it’s something we want to do, it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.”
That will be different from the current system because most trial court clerks don’t check to see if filing attorneys are suspended. Hall said, though, that when attorneys pay their delinquent fees or report CLE credits, their filing rights will be restored the following day.
Smith noted the authority board, at its January meeting, voted to write to Chief Justice Ricky Polston and ask for clarification on the trial court clerks’ ability to reject paper filings from attorneys after the April 1 deadline to begin e-filing. The chief justice wrote back, he said, and asked the authority for recommendations.
“I am currently working on a response,” Smith reported. “The direction I’m leaning to is to really not mandate an action by April 1, but let us track this for a period of time and see what problems we are having and what recommendations those might lead to.”
On other matters:
* Board members discussed difficulties when attorneys representing public agencies, which are exempt from filing fees, attempt to file documents. The portal has an option for indigent parties to get a fee waiver, but not specifically for government agencies. Hall said testing of the Supreme Court e-filing system found that was a flaw. “If you don’t pay that [filing] fee or do the waiver, it blocks you out. You can’t go any further,” he said. Owens noted that some public attorneys click on the fee waiver option and then note on the form they are representing an exempt government agency. Hall asked that the instruction on doing that be included on the portal, and the board voted to make it the attorney’s responsibility — for the time being — to designate when a fee should be waived rather than have the portal software determine that automatically.
* Owens reported that progress is being made on preparing for e-filing for criminal cases, which becomes mandatory on October 1. He said 11 counties in a pilot project have completed preliminary work and will begin testing of e-filing with state attorneys and public defenders in mid-April. “We had exactly what you would expect from a pilot program. We uncovered some issues. We addressed those issues and got them fixed. We think the results were very positive,” Owens said. Equally important, several state attorney and public defender offices are making progress to allow batch filings of documents in several cases at once, something critical for both offices, he said.
* Carolyn Weber, hired to oversee adding e-service to the portal, said the subcommittee working on that project has completed its documentation and is ready to meet with vendors to discuss schedules and costs.
* The board voted to ask its staff to come up with a recommendation by the authority’s March 12 meeting to find a simple, temporary way for federal prosecutors — who do not have to be Bar members — to get access through the portal for e-filing. The system is set up to use members’ Florida Bar numbers to verify they have the right to electronically file; for the time being, only attorneys will be allowed to electronically file. Board members said the solution might involve creating a special Bar number for federal prosecutors until a more permanent and “elegant” solution can be developed. That, however, may have to wait until the authority board finishes its Herculean task of getting civil and criminal e-filing up and running this year.
(Editor's Note: The Supreme Court has modified the deadline when electronic filing is required by attorneys in their cases at the court.
The court had originally set a February 27 deadline for mandatory filing. But in a February 18 order, the court made February 27 an optional date where attorneys may voluntarily file documents electronically with the court.
The court set April 1 as the new mandatory deadline for e-filing when attorneys will be required to submit documents to the court through the statewide portal.
The portal can be found online at www.myflcourtaccess.com. Information and training videos on using the portal can be found on the website of the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority, which oversees the portal through which all state court filings will be made. That site is: www.flclerks.com/eFiling_authority.html.
The complete text of the administrative order setting the new date, AOSC13-7, can be found on the Supreme Court’s website under the court clerk’s office at: www.floridasupremecourt.org/clerk/adminorders/2013/AOSC13-7.pdf.)